Running a business where client demand for your product exceeds supply by a ratio of 250 to 1 may seem like an enviable business model to many MBA students. At its peak, Ferran Adria’s elBulli restaurant in Spain was fielding close to two million requests a year for one of the eight thousand dining places available, and the more than thirty course menu included dishes such as liquid raviolis, caviar made from olive oil, and 'Parmesan snow' that often seemed more about scientific research than traditional cuisine.
However, despite its incredible popularity the restaurant struggled to turn culinary flair into bottom line profit, which might go some way to explaining why Adria has decided to shut up shop and focus on creating a ‘foundation for creativity and innovation' instead. Any business lessons learned in the name of art appear firmly embedded in the new project, because he has now turned to MBA students from five of the world's leading business schools to help him develop a sustainable strategy for the new elBulli foundation.
Speaking to students at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business last week, Adria launched an MBA case competition, which will also include participants from Harvard, Columbia, Esade and London Business School and which will be supported by telecoms giant Telefónica. Never one to think small, Adria’s aim is to go beyond simple cooking and address the whole way that society interacts with creative talent. Tasked with keeping this particular creative balloon firmly tethered to solid ground, the competing student teams, each mentored by a business school professor, will therefore need to propose solutions for an organisational structure that can attract and retain the best international talent, find new standards for measuring performance, and ensure that the foundation will be economically and environmentally sustainable. As the super-chef puts it, “"It can't be a project in which I am the only one making the decisions. So the students have to come up with better ideas than me. And what better place than business schools to discuss how things can be financed and structured?"
Of course this is not the first time that business schools have whet the appetites of their students with lessons from the kitchen. French business school EM Lyon, arguably in the geographic heart of France's culinary tradition, already partners with 3-star Michelin chef Paul Bocuse and his Culinary Arts Institute to study the creative process, and think about how an apparently frivolous idea can be made to generate hard cash and lots of it. For Professor Rickie Moore, the exposure to unfamiliar environments such as top-flight restaurants – and specifically their kitchens - forces students to develop new ways of thinking that can be applied to more conventional organisations.
Though students working with Adria and Bocuse may pick up some helpful tips on making the perfect scrambled eggs, the kitchen is not an excuse for a cooking class, but a tool for analysing efficiency and having the time and space to create new things. Let's just hope they steer clear of cooking the books.